Kui Elephant Catchers and the Pakam Rope: From Thailand to Cambridge

2 minute read

If you’ve been to MAA recently, you may have noticed a new addition to the gallery on the second floor. In March 2023, a new item came into MAA’s care – a เชือกปะกำ (Pakam rope) from Surin province in northeast Thailand, along the border with Cambodia. This rope of braided water buffalo hide was made by Boonma Saendee, Oh Salangam, Apinan Salangam, Pradit Salangam, and Kumnong Salangam – members of the Kui Indigenous community of Thailand. Pakam ropes like this one were traditionally used by the Kui to catch wild elephants until this practice came to an end in the 1950s/1960s. 

Figure 1. Cheụ̄xk pakả (pakam rope), used by hmor chang (elephant doctors) to catch elephants, and made from braided hide of three male and female water buffalo. Ta Klang Village, Surin Province, Thailand. Made by Boonma Saendee, Oh Salangam, Apinan Salangam, Pradit Salangam, and Kumnong Salangamwas. Purchased by Alisa Santikarn from Supatra and Sunthorn Soonsok. MAA 2023.5

Supported by a grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund, the process of acquiring the rope into MAA’s care was complex and raised several questions on the ethics of collection. One issue we had to consider was whether or not this rope was alive. And, if so, should we collect it and how could we best care for it? Older Pakam ropes made for members of the Kui community known as hmor ajiang or ‘elephant doctors’ (the men who would catch wild elephants) contain ancestral spirits and are seen by some as the physical embodiment of the Kui god, Pakam. We were assured, however, that the rope we purchased – a new Pakam rope made specifically for sale – had no spirits inside. However, certain rules of care still had to be followed. Specifically, the Pakam rope can only be touched by men (posing a minor logistical issue as the person bringing the rope from Surin to Cambridge was not a man). 

You can visit the Pakam rope in person while it is on display in MAA and see how it is presented. However, this digital exhibition – also accessible via a QR code in the display case – hopes to bridge the gap between the spaces of the physical gallery and the online sphere. When speaking with representatives of the Kui community about the purchase of the rope and whether or not it was appropriate, it came out that the primary benefit they saw in MAA having the rope was improved visibility for their community. Until recently, many people in Thailand – let alone overseas – would not have known about the Kui. The digital exhibition, as a more permanent and widely accessible option, to accompany the physical display of the rope is an added step towards increasing public awareness of the Kui. We hope it will also provide an example of some alternatives and additions to physical collection and displays.

To learn more about the Kui of Thailand and the Pakam rope, take a look at our new digital exhibition, หมอช้างชาวกูยและเชือกปะกำ: จากประเทศไทยสู่เมืองเคมบริดจ์ (Kui Elephant Catchers and the Pakam Rope: A journey from Thailand to Cambridge). This exhibition was created by Alisa Santikarn and Imogen Coulson, with the support and input of Dr Sanong Suksaweang, from the Kui Association of Thailand. 

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